This morning I talked with Nobel-prize-winning physicist John Mather and a few dozen high school students from New York, Kansas, Florida, and Ghana at the World Science Festival. In a testament to the maturity of videoconferencing technology, we actually had a fantastic conversation, which consisted in large part of the students peppering Mather about cosmology, his area of expertise. I remember well being 14 and thinking to myself, "So...wait a minute...if the universe is expanding, what's it expanding into?" But I didn't get to ask the person who built the COBE satellite that actually found some of the key evidence for the Big Bang. So I was a little jealous today.
I hope that the video gets posted online before too long, because I thought Mather was the model of how scientists can stoke the passion of young people. I mean, here was a guy who hung out after our talk to autograph pictures of COBE for students. For a line of students. To give a sense of how good he is, check out Mather on Youtube, answering questions from museum goers (see below).
I was particularly pleased by one thing that Mather said. He was talking to the students about how you become a scientist. He observed that you need to figure out the sorts of tools you need to do the science that excites you most, and learn how to use them. But he also said that it's crucial for aspiring scientists to learn how to write well. Because otherwise no one will understand what you're doing or why it matters.
I swear that I did not pay him to say that. I was just glad he did.